The death of Prince Phillip is one of those moments where it’s the end of a different era for the entire world: Phillip’s marriage to Queen Elizabeth and their leadership of the English monarchy from 1953 to this year. Together they witnessed the world go through the Great Depression, the Second World War (which Phillip served in with distinction), and all the events of the 20th Century, and nearly the first quarter of the 21st Century.
Phillip and Elizabeth represent the last head of any government connected to the Second World War era, often regarded as the greatest generation in history. As The Wall Street Journal notes, Phillip’s death leaves the Queen as “Britain’s last high-profile living link to its age of empire and of victory in World War II.”
Americans, of course, rebelled from the British empire, giving us the vantage point of a country that is both related but on the outside. Our natural inclination is a suspicion of monarchy and power vested in a single person, which makes sense given our history, but not always correct.
Remarkably, the British monarch continues to survive. Even with the United Kingdom’s empire shrinking down to effectively only the main island, the Queen remains “head of state of 16 countries, including Canada, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.” It is an institution unique among the world, having survived the push of modernity which has essentially eliminated the role of monarchies in governing.
Prince Phillip’s life was one, too, which resisted modernity while evoking all the most excellent qualities of an “Englishman,” despite never being one himself. In his superb essay, Ed West says of Prince Phillip:
He was born in Corfu but grew up outside Paris speaking French; ethnically he was mostly German although he considered himself Danish, his family originating from the Schleswig border region. He was also, despite his demeanour of Royal Navy officer briskness, a citizen of nowhere in an age of movement. From a very young age he was a stateless person, nationally homeless.
When Phillip married Elizabeth, his “three surviving sisters and two brothers-in-law were not permitted to attend [the wedding] because they were literally Britain’s enemies, having fought for the Germans. A third brother-in-law had even been in the SS, working directly for Himmler, but had been killed in the conflict.”
Phillip became the great man that he was through hard work, honor and respect. Through that, he supported Elizabeth through all the challenges that time threw at them, leaving behind a monarchy and legacy that still stands. At the same time, other countries and peers fell away.
In the modern era, it’s near impossible to serve as a unifying national figure. The march of progress for the better part of the last 100-plus years has seen a fracturing and individualization of all politics. Everything is now run by Republics, Democracies, or faceless technocratic bureaucrats.
Countries with the equivalent of a modern monarchy are (correctly) considered authoritarian, places like China, Russia, Cuba, etc. If these authoritarians show the worst of what leadership by one looks like, Phillip and Elizabeth epitomize the very best the monarchic model can provide.
The ancient Greeks saw the world as cyclical, with states evolving through good and bad versions of all kinds of governments. Good democracies could fall into mob rule; Aristocracies, which were good, could collapse into oligarchy; and the good monarchies could evolve into tyrannies. They called this anacyclosis.
A collapse was never a given, and maintaining a good form of government took hard work. As most Americans would believe, monarchies are not bad, nor are most Republics or Democracies inherently good. The people within them fill those institutions with meaning and purpose and decide the fate of their societies with their actions.
To this end, Phillip lived a life that epitomized the very best that a parliamentary-monarchy system had to offer. He served with dignity and grace that echoes the behavior we’d like to see in everyone. When you have good and honorable men like Prince Phillip serving the Queen in his marriage, it is for the betterment of the nation.
That is why the scene of her sitting alone in a church sanctuary experiencing her grief in an incredibly lonely way may be the cruelest optical moment of the pandemic. It’s a reminder that all these restrictions have driven us apart and not allowed us to share in loss and grief together.
A life such as Phillip’s should be felt, celebrated, and remembered as a group, supporting the Queen and elevating the kind of men we want leading us, in whatever form of government we live. Phillip’s life reminds us that it’s not the government or station of life one is in that’s important. It’s the integrity of the individual that held it.
He was among the very best, which in turn elevates the good qualities of the Queen. These may be strange words coming from an American. Still, as George H. W. Bush was when he passed, they are another reminder that we are losing some of the best individuals the British and American traditions have ever offered. We should remember and revere their lives, for we need more of them to arise for our future to flourish.
God Save the Queen. Thank you for sharing Prince Phillip with the rest of the world.